British fantasy author Terry Pratchett has spent nearly his entire career writing about the Discworld, a pancake-shaped land carried on the back of a giant cosmic turtle. Over the decades, his Discworld series has blossomed from a clever Douglas Adams-style parody of the sword-and-sorcery genre into a broad-ranging social satire that uses jokes about wizards and trolls to deliver sage observations about the human experience. Snuff is the 39th installment; this incredibly long run is made more incredible by Pratchett’s consistently high level of craftsmanship and creativity, especially his clear, warmly wise, sly prose style.
One reason for Pratchett’s immense popular success—only J.K. Rowling beats him in UK hardcover sales—is that he’s terrific at playing a very long game, keeping the series from becoming stale by switching perspective characters and settings from book to book, building a world with a rich history and a sense of constant evolution. Nothing embodies that as much as the Watch novels—Snuff is the latest—starring Sam Vimes, the grizzled, cynical, but unfailingly justice-minded commander of Ankh-Morpork’s police force. Nominally comic mashups of the high-fantasy and police-procedural genres, the Watch books are also Pratchett’s major avenue for telling a much larger story about how a modern multicultural democracy can be born out of medieval squalor, with the city of Ankh-Morpork standing in for Pratchett’s London.
Vimes has come up in the world along with his city, and Snuff finds the streetwise copper-turned-Duke adjusting badly to a workaholic’s nightmare—two weeks’ vacation at his wife’s palatial family estate in the countryside. Vimes knows where he stands when it comes to arresting violent trolls and dwarves, but finds Jane Austen country and its society ladies baffling and full of unseen social pitfalls. Before long, though, the story abandons this angle to put Vimes back in his comfortable bloodhound mode: He ferrets out a crime involving troll-drug smuggling and the murder of a young goblin girl, not to mention a coverup hinting at something much bigger and nastier. Though he’s out of his jurisdiction, Vimes sees himself as the fist of the very long arm of the law, and teams up with his butler Willikins (who’s tougher than he looks, more Batman than Alfred) and the inexperienced local constable to bring justice where it’s needed. He’s almost relieved to have found corruption in the bucolic countryside, since at least he knows how to deal with it.
Snuff has all the whimsical humor, fast-moving action, and insightful humanism that Pratchett fans have come to love him for, but has its flaws. Chiefly, his typically crisp sense of pacing is a little off—the promising fish-out-of-water scenario of Vimes-in-Austenland is abruptly dropped, only to resurface toward the end, by which time it seems to belong in a different book. And although the action builds to a masterful crescendo when Vimes chases down a villain on a runaway riverboat racing through treacherous floodwaters, there are nearly 100 pages of loose ends to tie up afterward. Worse, though, Snuff’s “goblins are people too” subplot hits its pro-tolerance theme with a hard clang, and seems a little rote considering that earlier books have already used fantasy creatures to satirically skewer real-world racism with dwarves, trolls, golems, vampires, werewolves, zombies, and orcs. On the plus side, Pratchett is still one of the funniest writers in the genre, and Snuff delivers an extensive low-comedy running joke about the almost scientific fascination Vimes’ young son has for animal scat, as well a reversal of the “just a simple farmer” cliché via a farmer who breeds “extremely complicated” chickens.